Would you-should you-forgive someone who has confessed to torturing and murdering your co-religionists?
While many would agree with noted Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal-whose protagonist in “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,” withholds granting such pardon-others might answer differently.
Indeed, reactions to Wiesenthal’s book, first published in 1976, were so diverse and so passionate that the publishers reissued it 20 years later, including dozens of responses from people supporting different positions.
“The story is very visceral,” said Teaneck resident Idajean Fisher, who will lead a three-part reading and writing workshop on the book at Temple Emeth beginning Sept. 13. “It’s not possible for anyone to read the book and not put themselves in the author’s shoes, not wonder what they would have done,” she said, noting that while the original 100-page book has been called a novella, it is based on a real experience.
“It’s really startling to look at the list of who responded to the book,” she said, pointing out that for the most part, these responses were unsolicited. The 53 responses included in the book’s second edition come from theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocides throughout the world.
“People began writing to the author, saying things like ‘You really made me think,'” she said. “It invites discussion.”
Fisher’s class is part of the shul’s mini-university, which supplements the synagogue’s regular education program, focusing intensively on specific topics.
The first session of the workshop will discuss the original book, in which a forced laborer who has seen the destruction of his family and community is brought before a dying German officer, who pleads for forgiveness. The Jewish laborer remains silent, but wonders years later if he had done the right thing.
“At that moment, he has to decide what is the higher commitment to a Jew,” said Fisher, “to give comfort, or to never forget. There are all different answers.”
In sessions two and three of the class, participants will read and discuss some of the responses and compose their own answers.
“They can be in whatever form a person is comfortable developing,” said Fisher, adding that she expects most will be done as essays or as poetry.
Fisher’s goal is to further participants’ “introspection-helping people look at how they feel about forgiveness, what their limits are,” she said. “In essence, we as modern American Jews look back at the Holocaust and even to make sense of [it] is a monumental thing.” One result of her class may be to help people “get in touch with and articulate those feelings and how we feel about it.”
Fisher, a congregant who often volunteers to teach at the synagogue, said she thought the book, and the problems it poses, would make “a neat workshop.”
She said that while the synagogue does not usually hold educational programs until after the High Holy Days, her class-with the topic of forgiveness, so appropriate for the penitential season-“is being offered at an unusual time of year.”
Longtime Temple Emeth congregant Peter Adler will be among those attending the workshop. Born in Germany, Adler escaped from that country in 1939, at age 8.
“I saw that Idajean was doing this workshop and I was interested because I was familiar with the subject,” he said. A former Teaneck resident now living in Fort Lee, Adler said that over the past few years, he has put together a presentation called “Forgiveness: Out of the Ashes,” which he has delivered to various Jewish groups.
“I put it on at the JCC [on the Palisades], Temple Emeth, and for a Second Generation group at the JFS in Teaneck,” he said. “The whole idea is that you can’t continue hatred of the German people because at one time the Nazis were in control and did horrible things.”
“There’s a new generation,” he said. “We have to forgive and learn how to get along.”
Adler noted that older people, as well as children of survivors, have found his position difficult to accept.
“They can’t forgive,” he said, adding that he himself has gone back to Germany more than once. He and his wife, Ruth, traveled to Frankfurt on a trip sponsored by the city for former citizens. On a second trip, he brought his children.
While there, he was “moved” by what he saw, visiting the city’s remaining synagogue. These trips, he said, triggered the creation of his presentation.
Still, Adler recognizes that he might feel differently had he not been able to escape Germany when he did.
“The whole idea is that [Wiesenthal] was asked to forgive after horrible things happened. Faced with that, I don’t think I could forgive. It may depend on what you’ve experienced personally. I might feel differently if I had been in a concentration camp.”
He noted that a close friend of his, a survivor, did forgive the Germans, although he felt compelled to drop his religious observance after the Holocaust.
“I’ll definitely think about the book during the High Holidays,” said Adler. But mostly, “I’ll ask if I can forgive my own sins.”
The workshop will be held on three Tuesdays, Sept. 13 and 20 and Oct. 4, from 8-9:30 p.m. For more information, call Temple Emeth, (201) 833-1322.